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Phonics and Alternatives for Students with Disabilities

written by: Sandy Fleming • edited by: Sarah Malburg • updated: 1/17/2012

Specialized teaching techniques and programs offer hope for students with reading disabilities. Educate yourself about options in remedial reading for students of all ages and find effective strategies for struggling or dyslexic readers in your classroom.

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    Alternative Reading Strategies for Reading Disabilities

    Students who struggle with reading often have more options than parents (or even teachers) may realize. There are alternative teaching techniques to help students over temporary learning hurdles and entire programs with proven success for the learning disabled or dyslexic student. There are methods suited to auditory, visual, kinesthetic and multisensory learning styles.

    The first step to successful advocating for students with reading disabilities is becoming informed. Teachers, tutors, and parents need background information about what techniques have successful track records and which programs incorporate them. Match the optimum technique with the struggling reader, and progress is bound to follow.

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    What About Phonics?

    Phonics continues to be the most effective and flexible reading strategy. It can be a stumbling block for many troubled readers, but there are strategies that can help most people master the necessary skills.

    • One such teaching strategy is to present information intentionally and in small sequential steps. Many traditional reading programs move quickly and make large conceptual leaps. Many also move students through lessons before they have truly mastered the material. In most classrooms, everyone moves on to the next lesson as a group. Student progress is considered satisfactory if they respond correctly at least 70% of the time. That’s not good enough to ensure continued mastery for some students. It’s important to ensure progress for struggling readers by teaching in small sequential steps to a high degree of mastery.

    Students also benefit from programs that incorporate at least some multisensory techniques.

    • Programs that include oral presentation accompanied by visual information, that utilize color-coding or other attention-grabbing techniques, and those that incorporate writing and other motor responses have the greatest chance for success with the largest number of struggling students. Engaging lessons, age-appropriate and inclusive stories, and memory work are all key components of a good remedial reading program. In addition, it is important to have a component that allows the student to create his or her own personalized reference for spelling rules, phonics information, and vocabulary.

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    Alternatives to Phonics

    In addition to phonics, there are other strategies to help readers decode unknown words.

    • Many of these alternatives focus on visual cues, such as letter clusters (like word family groups or common groups of letters within words such as –ild, or -eep), or word shapes, where students are taught to discriminate commonly confused words by looking at the outer shape of the word dictated by the tall, small and hanging down letters.
    • The old See-and-Say method of teaching reading (through rote memorization of word forms) can be used as a last resort. Some programs utilize rebus pictures and graphics designed to invoke letter shapes or word meanings, such as the Ball and Stick Program that has been used with developmentally disabled persons.

    The key point to remember is that there are options for teaching reading that go beyond the basal reading series and most programs are already in place in the mainstream of our educational system. Advocates may need to do a bit of searching, but alternative reading strategies and programs for disabled students do exist and are available. The extra effort to find an appropriate teaching technique or program will have dramatic impact on literacy skills and life outcomes.